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If you hang up your boots every autumn, you’re missing out on deserted trails, snowy vistas, and four months of some of the best that the wilderness has to offer. These 12 hikes prove that backpacking season never has to end. Which will you pick?
Best Winter Hike for Beginners. Methow Valley, WA
Ready for your first winter overnight? Here’s a reliable formula: Take low-angle terrain with reliable snow coverage and subtract routefinding and trail-breaking from your itinerary. On the eastern side of the Cascades, a groomed, 124-mile Nordic trail network makes for good entry-level travel for snowshoers. After a leisurely tour, spend the long night in comfort: The Rendezvous Hut system includes five shelters, each with trail access and bunks for eight to 10 people. From Grizzly Hut (mile 9 on the Nordic trail), ski or snowshoe about a mile up 4,275-foot Grizzly Mountain to views of the North Cascades with 8,898-foot Gardner Mountain front and center. “In our basin you get amazing views without overly strenuous climbs,” says owner Ben Nelson. “And we’re high enough and close enough to the Cascade Crest that we get nice, dry snow.” Those 11,000-footers on the horizon dampen the force of Pacific storms, which means ample winter sun for Methow Valley skiers. And pretty much guarantees your first snowy excursion will be one of many.
Best Winter Hike for Views: Mt. Hood, OR
Without summer crowds, this front-row view of Oregon’s Mt. Hood from the shoulder of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain is all yours. Hike a mile to Mirror Lake, then straight up the snow gully to the 5,066-foot summit. Tired? Turn around and take a breather—if the view doesn’t suck the wind right out of you.
Best Winter Canyon Hike: Zion National Park, UT
If you’re convinced of snow’s beauty but don’t want to walk on frozen ground, Zion offers a chance to ogle frosted redrock without having any snow—or throngs of park visitors—underfoot. Few vistas are more iconic than the Watchman, visible from a short river-bottom trail that’s too hot to enjoy in summer. That makes fall the most popular season, but let winter pay off your patience. Hike 1.8 miles along The Watchman Trail and take in a Who’s Who of stone celebrities (Beehives, West Temple) in 60°F mid-winter temperatures on your way to this overlook of the massif. When snow flecks the pocked, 6,555-foot sandstone spire, it adds a depth and perspective that fair weather visitors will never see.
TRAILHEAD The Watchman Trail (37.201341, -112.986495) PERMIT None
Best Winter Hike for Backpacking Like a Local: Boundary Waters, MN
When biting insects retreat and the famous waters freeze solid, Boundary Waters locals break out their skis and schuss through remote boreal forests—portaging not required. Created in 1983 from old logging roads, the 16.7-mile Banadad Ski Trail edges expanses of shifting lake ice and traverses the quiet northern country between Lake Superior and the Canadian border. “I see a lot of wolf prints,” says Ted Young of Boundary Country Trekking, who sets the ski track on the Banadad once a week. “In winter, moose hang out in the burnt-over area where new brush has grown.” The mostly flat trail sees about 100 inches of snow fall each year, which lingers on the spruce and balsam trees that line the way. Shelter from tree-cracking overnight cold at one of Young’s two yurts that sleep six each (located at the eastern trailhead and mile 11.8). Best part: He provides sleeping bags, organizes the car shuttle, schleps gear, and warms up the woodstove.
TRAILHEAD 48.053224, -90749988; 43 miles northwest of Grand Marais on Gunflint Tr. CAMP Two yurt nights plus shuttles for four people start at $325 PERMIT Minnesota Ski Pass ($6/day) and BWCA day permit (free at trailhead) required.
Best Winter Hike for Beating the Heat: Ironwood National Monument, AZ
We’re used to thinking of winter as limiting route options. Go far enough south, and the opposite becomes true. The Sonoran Desert flat-out scorches summer hikers, but by winter, daytime highs drop from 100 to 70°F in Ironwood Forest National Monument. And resilient explorers will need every advantage to summit Ragged Top Mountain, a trailless, 3,907-foot chunk of volcanic rhyolite that juts skyward just outside Tucson. But a tough trek has its rewards: solitude in a pristine section of wilderness and the only population of desert bighorns around. To do it, navigate a prickly bushwhack to the south flank. There, a loose gully climbs 1,600 feet through class 3 terrain to a saddle west of the summit with views of the piney arroyos snaking across the bajada. “It’s a continual adventure,” says Dana Davis, owner of Tucson’s Summit Hut. “When I hiked it, we saw petroglyphs near the base.”
TRAILHEAD 32.462959, -111.465390; 42 miles northwest of Tucson on W. Silverbell Rd. PERMIT None
Best Winter Seaside Hike: Oswald West State Park, OR
Uninformed hikers may choose to hibernate during winter, but they’d be missing A-list migrations. From December through January, up to 20,000 gray whales move from the Bering Sea to lagoons on Baja’s Pacific Coast, passing Oregon’s northern shores, where sheer rock cliffs supply excellent vantage points. Pack binoculars and follow singletrack 2.4 miles on the Cape Falcon Trail for ocean views atop a 100-foot outcrop. “We’re close to a marine reserve, so there are plenty of nutrients for the whales,” says park ranger Amy Hurst. “Look for their spray.” Skunked on whales? Observe a different kind of behemoth by extending the hike to the 4.3-mile Arch Cape Trail to wander among 250-year-old Sitka spruce.
TRAILHEAD 45.763094, -123.956009; 89 miles west of Portland on US 101 PERMIT None
Best Winter Hike for Escaping the Cold: Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, CO
The urge for a summer-like backpacking trip can strike any time of year. And when it hits in winter, head to Big Dominguez Canyon on Colorado’s Western Slope for a classic three-day, 35-mile route that follows the footsteps of the ancients. Bring your routefinding chops to the Bridgeport trailhead, cross the tressle, and head up the Big D, taking advantage of seasonal quiet to contemplate 3,000-year-old pictographs of desert bighorns and hunting scenes from the 18th century. Winter brings manageable temps (average highs in the 50s), but the darker and more recessed parts of the canyon stay cold enough for pourovers to freeze. Camp in the canyon anywhere after the first few miles (WAG bags required) or wait for Dominguez Campground at mile 12.6. Head south cross-country (now in the Uncompahgre National Forest) to Black Point (38.679700, -108.520800) and head down Little Dominguez Creek Trail for the final 17 miles to close the loop.
TRAILHEAD 38.849433, -108.372276; 24 miles southeast of Grand Junction on Bridgeport Rd. PERMIT None
Best Winter Hikes for People Who Love the Cold: Jasper National Park, AB
There may be no better place on the continent to experience winter than Jasper National Park. And you can tour the palace while the griz is gone. From late December to mid-March, Jasper’s 100 resident brown bears hibernate, leaving the vast lake basins and Rocky Mountain skyscrapers to the rest of the food chain. Pair a lowered guard with a mellow route that offers a chance to take in the quiet forests, snow-frosted summits, and the Milky Way from the world’s largest dark sky preserve. In the Maligne Lake zone, start with a 1-mile approach to Medicine Lake, keeping alert for bull elk and woodland caribou. From there, the 8-mile trek to Jacques Lake gains just 500 vertical feet to campsites spangled with starlight (all but guaranteed) and the shimmer of the Northern Lights, which are more common during winter. Both make a fitting light show for this ice-bound paradise.
TRAILHEAD 52.870660, -117.806103; 16 miles west of Jasper on Maligne Lake Rd. PERMIT required; C$9.80/person per night
Best Winter Hike for Beating the Crowds: Cumberland Trail State Park, TN
Good hikes usually mean good crowds, but winter clears the planned 330-mile Cumberland Trail along the Cumberland Plateau. For the best weekend-size chunk, tackle a 22.1-mile point-to-point through the Three Gorges section. “The path hardly strays from a crashing whitewater stream encased in a steep-walled gorge,” says Bob Fulcher, the manager of Cumberland Trail State Park. In winter, fine crystals from the fall’s spray glaze the rock walls. Start at Soddy Creek and hike north across two suspension bridges and an old coal mine; camp at Little Possum Creek Campsite (mile 10.5).
SHUTTLE 35.410100, -85.130933; 31 miles north of Chattanooga on Legget Rd. TRAILHEAD 35.281617, -85.193500; 20 minutes south of shuttle on Hotwater Rd. PERMIT free
Best Winter Rock Hike in the Midwest: Garden of the Gods, IL
Glaciers started the work on this geological playground during the last Ice Age, but the sculpting continues today. Each winter, cold temperatures decorate the swirling rock with dagger icicles, frost crystals, and an occasional blanket of snow. Admire the work on the Observation Trail, which wends atop 70-foot cliffs among sandstone formations. After the loop, take trail 152B and return via 001A for a 3-mile round-trip that takes advantage of the bare trees to net far-reaching views over the landscape. “You’re right where the Ice Age glaciers stopped,” says Rick Reeve, owner of Shawnee Trails Wilderness Outfitters. “They scrubbed everything flat to the north, and left the south like it was.”
TRAILHEAD 37.604974, -88.384717; 150 miles southeast of St. Louis, MO, on Picnic Rd. PERMIT None
Best Winter Hike for Hot Springs: Ruby Valley, NV
Found: the natural remedy for bone-chilling days. Location: northeastern Nevada, where 11,000-foot peaks overlook the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Cross-country ski or snowshoe roughly 7 miles to the Ruby Valley Hot Springs along unplowed 4×4 roads to reach this collection of pools just outside the refuge’s eastern border. “The ground around the main pool is all mud in warm weather, so if it’s frozen, you’re golden,” says local Peter Schmidt. That makes winter visits—when daytime temps hover in the mid-teens—prime time for soak seekers. Relax on limestone benches in the largest, 30-foot-wide pool, where water temps hover around 100°F. Between wafts of steam, scan the steppe for wild horses, pronghorns, and 200 species of birds (both endemic and migratory) drawn to the protected marsh within the desert. Caution: Beware some of the smaller spring-fed pools. They may look inviting, but they can top out at 122°F.
TRAILHEAD 40.308672, -115.452016; 51 miles south of Elko on Harrison Pass Dr. PERMIT None
Best Winter Hike for Warm Weather: Suwannee River State Park, FL
Not feeling the ’flakes? Head south where winter never gets surly and hike alongside a river that never got tamed. Way up in northern Florida, a 15-mile section of the Florida Trail traces the Suwanee River to Holton Creek River Camp, where mild daytime temps encourage meandering. Hike past cypress trees, their bald knees poking up from the river bottom, then climb and descend along 40-foot limestone bluffs that bank the spring-fed Suwanee. “I’ve found fossils of seashells in the cliffs,” says Alex Stigliano, program director for the Florida Trail Association. “And the river doubles as a wildlife corridor.” At Holton Creek, bunk down (gratis for Florida Trail hikers) in screened shelters with hot showers nearby.
Fancy a ride on the only Southeastern river that hasn’t been dammed, improved, or diverted? Backtrack 3 miles to Gibson Park, where Suwanee River Canoe Rental ($40/day) delivers boats and PFDs for the 7-mile flatwater paddle back to your starting point.
TRAILHEAD 30.386906,-83.174656; 38 miles northwest of Lake City on NE Drew Way CAMP Free; first-come, first-serve PERMIT None
Published October 2017; update October 2021